Thursday, January 8, 2009

La Haine, pt. 1

I can hear a police helicopter now above Oakland. This is due to last night's riot, where 105 people were locked up as they protested the January 1 murder of a young black man by a transit policeman.

Quite coincidentally I had been planning to review La Haine, Mathieu Kassovitz's 1995 film, which rocked France for its depiction of the hostility between public housing denizens and the police. Kassovitz is an actor/filmmaker best known outside France as Amelie Poulain's crumpet. La Haine presents a decidedly different vision of Paris than Jean-Pierre Jeunet's fairy tale.

It's the story of three young men, a Jew, a black, and a North African, and of their hostile, bored, tragic lives in the city's banlieue (poor suburb). They pass their underemployed days clowning around and getting high. But when Vinz (Vincent Cassel, maybe France's greatest actor) comes into possession of a gun, their frustration is concretized into violence.

La Haine is distinctively French in its style and setting. The boys hang out on a rooftop and imagine that they can kill the lights of the Eiffel Tower. They speak in verlan, a slang of inverted French vocabulary that owes its roots to Africa. And its hard to imagine the three main characters' ethnic mix coming together anywhere other than Paris' banlieue.

But the influence of this film went far "beyond the hexagon," as the French say. It is not an exaggeration to say that it began a new genre: the tense, funny and tragic urban survival film. City of God and Slumdog Millionaire belong to this genre. Costa-Gavras, in the DVD's liner notes, said

I consider La Haine to be a metaphor for our world. More than ten years ago, Mathieu Kassovitz showed us at the scale of a neighborhood what is happening today at a global level. The peacemakers, those who are supposed to spread democracy and justice on behalf of our sated and self-satisfied societies, are spreading death, contempt, racism and humiliation.

Kassovitz's film is not only prescient with respect to the conditions of outer Paris. It identifies a very contemporary sort of malaise and precarity. It's the condition of marginalized groups on the immediate outskirts of the consumerist paradise of the First World. This is a phenomenon not just in France or Europe but all over the world. The response of world leaders has been less than inspiring...